Sunday, May 04, 2014

Work "Forces"

A couple of years ago, my wife and I sat down with an advisor to revisit our financial plan.  Having gathered all the requisite information regarding assets, debt, insurance, and retirement savings, he turned to me and asked how long I planned to work.

Being in a profession that I not only enjoy, but one relatively unbounded by physical constraints; having some appreciation for the various financial trade-offs associated with the decision to retire, yet desirous of the ability to have more leisure time with my family—conscious of the fact that I have made a career studying and writing about such decisions—I paused to reflect….

And then my wife, with a smile on her face, laughed and said, “Oh, he’s going to work forever!”

Well, that wasn’t the answer I had in mind, but apparently I’m not the only one rethinking retirement.  In 1991, just 11 percent of workers expected to retire after age 65, according to the Retirement Confidence Survey (RCS)[i]. Twenty-three years later, in 2014, 33 percent of workers report that they expect to retire after age 65, and 10 percent don’t plan to retire at all. At the same time, the percentage of workers expecting to retire before age 65 has decreased, from 50 percent in 1991 to 27 percent.  Those expectations notwithstanding, the median (midpoint) age at which workers expect to retire has remained stable at 65 for most of the 24-year history of the RCS.

Moreover, a recent EBRI Notes article[ii] confirms that the labor-force participation rate for those ages 55 and older rose throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s when it began to level off, but with a small increase following the 2007-2008 economic downturn.  While for those ages 55-64 the upward trend was driven almost exclusively by the increased labor-force participation of women, among those age 65 or older, the rate increased for both males and females over that period.

The report notes, however, that the labor-force participation rates of younger workers increased when those of older workers declined or remained low during the late 1970s to the early 1990s, but as the labor-force participation rates of younger workers began to decline in the late 1990s, the rates for the older workers continuously increased – suggesting either that older workers filled the void left by younger workers’ lower participation, or that the higher representation in the workforce by older workers served to limit the opportunities for younger workers, either directly or perhaps by discouraging them from pursuing employment.

As the EBRI report notes, this upward trend in labor-force participation by older workers is perhaps related to workers’ desire for continued access to employment-based health insurance, to provide some additional years of employment to accumulate savings and/or pay down debt, or maybe even simply because they want to work.

Whatever their motivation(s), these trends highlight a number of key concerns for employers and policy makers: Will workers who want—or need—to increase their financial resources by working longer be able to find jobs?  How might workforce management (and health care costs) be affected by those decisions?  What could delayed workforce entry mean to the retirement savings accumulations of younger workers?

Ultimately, of course, and as the trends tracked and analyzed by EBRI have long indicated, the road through retirement is often influenced by the paths we take to retirement—and when, how, and if we are able to make the transition.
  • Nevin E. Adams, JD
[i] See “The 2014 Retirement Confidence Survey: Confidence Rebounds—for Those With Retirement Plans.”

[ii] The April EBRI Notes article, “Labor-force Participation Rates of the Population Ages 55 and Older, 2013,” is available online here.

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